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IaaS - Infrastructure as a Service a Threat or a Weapon?

A large part of the answer is a new concept in hardware and data storage known as Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)

With the proliferation of computers and data in the business world, it's time the IT department had a strategic weapon that will enable it to operate with the same flexibility as other departments and with more financial transparency. A large part of the answer is a new concept in hardware and data storage known as Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS).

Every year at budget time, IT executives play the same old guessing game. How much will the company grow in the coming year, and what IT assets will it need to support that growth? A mistake in either direction can be financially disastrous and career ending since companies are increasingly holding managers' feet to the fire about meeting their targets.
Guessing too high, based on sanguine business projections that may not pan out, or lack of good planning data burdens a company with expensive hardware that may sit underutilized or IT staff that may need to be downsized.

Guessing too low can mean a scramble midway through the year to squeeze existing inadequate computing and storage capacity to their limits, endangering the business's ability to sustain growth and creating an overwhelmed staff that may find it easier to seek employment elsewhere.

The many crucial jobs IT performs for a company are hard enough - provisioning employees and keeping their workstations up and running; protecting data to meet the stringent requirements imposed by Sarbanes-Oxley, HIPAA, PCI, and other regulations; managing data recovery and business continuity; and so on. The risk of operating with inadequate resources or burning unnecessarily through corporate funds are unwelcome addenda to the IT department's burden.

Now imagine a world where you can scale your IT capacity up or down on command without any capital expenditure. Imagine knowing that all your data is safely backed up and can be restored in hours, even if it's totally wiped out. Imagine being able to free your highly skilled IT staff to work on value-added tasks such as development and planning, instead of chasing bugs and installing patches ad infinitum. And now, as the executive in charge of your IT division, imagine doubling your personal market value (read salary) as you free yourself from tactical concerns and build a path to fulfilling a more strategic corporate role than ever before.

This world exists. It's enabled by a new business concept based on virtualizing the IT environment and is called Infrastructure as a Service. IaaS extends the remote hosting concept of Software as a Service (SaaS) to hardware.

If IaaS is a fairly new concept to you let me provide a basic understanding. Fundamentally, IaaS provides IT resources - processing power, storage, data center space, services, compliance - on-demand, enabling IT to bill these services as a variable fixed cost.

The interest in IaaS can be attributed to significant increases in IT-enabled business models such as e-commerce, Web 2.0 and SaaS, which drive demand, and by advances in technology that enable it, including virtualization, utility computing, and data center automation.

Just-in-Time power and computing capacity sounds like a dream come true to many people, yet to others it might sound like a nightmare in which they lose control of their IT environment, or worse, become redundant themselves as computing tasks are offloaded to an outside supplier. In my (admittedly biased) opinion, IaaS can be viewed as the newest strategic weapon in the IT arsenal, rather than a threat.

Weapon 1: The IT Administrator Takes a More Strategic Role
According to Forrester Research's 2007 worldwide PC adoption forecast, "There will be more than a billion PCs in use by the end of 2008 and more than two billion by 2015 - a 12.3% compound annual growth rate." With that kind of explosive growth in the computer sector, it's clear that the IT administrator's scope of responsibility is going to change dramatically.

When you hire an IT administrator you don't want someone who just knows how to log into a Windows box, find his way around, and get little things to work. You want someone who understands the big picture, who can grasp the importance of the 200 or 2,000 computers in use at your company and how they all operate together, and can manage them as a fleet. That's the Infrastructure as a Service model.

When administrators can manage five to 10 times the number of devices they're managing today, it might sound like a fast track to downsizing, but the real equation is the availability of trained staff in today's IT market, and how best to utilize their talents. As we know, there's a shortage of IT skills, so what companies need is a weapon that will enable them to recruit and retain good people. Since we can't educate new people fast enough, there's also a need for professionals who understand how to do more with less.
IaaS is the enabler.

At some point in their careers, IT people realize that they can only exert their influence or philosophy on things they can touch directly. Without a disruptive change, such as scripting or data center automation, their touch is their limitation. The administrators of tomorrow will need to understand how to manage hundreds or even thousands of devices. IaaS doesn't take away responsibility, but adds a strategic dimension to the job of IT, making managers more marketable, because they're now accustomed to working at a higher level.

The idea of a one-server-to-one-administrator model is gone. The only people likely to be threatened by this concept are those who are comfortable with their limitations.

Weapon 2: It Gets Aligned with the Core Business
Every executive wishes IT would be better aligned with and able to support the core business strategy. Today's businesses realize that IT isn't just a tool to help, but is a critical part of day-to-day operations and frequently instrumental in delivering the end product. With e-commerce, B2B portals, EDI, IP phone systems, and even e-mail, today's applications are fully integrated into the business, so it's critical that they behave the way the business does.

The first step to business alignment is cost control. No additional IT dollars should be spent unless it makes a positive impact on revenue. With IaaS and its variable but predictable monthly costs, you can manage spending on a monthly instead of an annual basis.

IaaS enables a whole new and more transparent way of accounting for IT. Today, IT is one line item. You know what you spend on all of your servers, all of the labor to maintain those servers, all of the power, and so on. You tote it up and allocate it by business unit. In the IaaS model, precise usage and costs are transparent down to the resource level - blade servers, operating systems, storage.

Because these resources are modular and transparent, IT can begin to tie utilization more closely to the bill that each business unit receives. This creates a closer link between what the business unit spends and the "service" it gets. Once that link is established, IT can begin to change business unit behavior away from "all-you-can-eat" to prioritization and cost/benefit.

More Stories By Pat O'Day

Pat O’Day is CTO and co-founder of Bluelock, a certified VMware vCloud Datacenter provider of Virtual Datacenters hosted in the public cloud, and is responsible for commercializing and making the company’s Infrastructure-as-as-Service (IaaS) model a business reality. With almost 20 years of IT infrastructure experience, he holds countless certifications and serves as a technical advisor and conference speaker for industry-leading technology companies including IBM, VMware, F5, Shavlik and LeftHand Networks. He is also the co-founder and former president of the local Association of Internet Professionals and a former board member of the technology peer group for TechPoint, Indiana’s only statewide information technology association.

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